Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mining for Regulations

It was sad to hear of the mining accident that occurred at the beginning of this week, in which twelve miners were killed after an explosion in a West Virginia mine.

In typical reactionary fashion, many people have suggested establishing stricter safety regulations for mines. Naturally, they hope that more stringent requirements will result in fewer deaths and injuries. BBC News notes that while the U.S. has significantly fewer mining deaths than China (30/year in the U.S. compared to China with 8,000/year), the current requirements of "at least four mandatory inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration each year" and penalties ranging up to $60,000 per safety violation may not be enough. Claudia Cole, widow of a Kentucky coal miner who was killed last year when the roof collapsed on a mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, hopes that the tragedy will help prevent other deaths from occurring. "'[The miners are] safer than they were back in the 1930's,' Cole explains. 'But to me they're not doing everything they could. If they were, there wouldn't be these deaths.'" According to the article, Cole would like to see more safety rules come from the recent mining accident. An NPR interview cites "[t]ougher government regulation and technology improvements" as the reason why mining accidents have decreased over the past two decades. Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for mine safety and health at the Department of Labor, says, "Trouble is, no matter how many safety measures we introduce into the workplace, the dangers are recreated every 24 hours ... Miners have to be a lot more vigilant than other workers."

Miners understand quite well that their job is a dangerous one. They do not take these risks blindly. For their level of education, they are highly compensated due to the risky nature of the profession. If the workers truly wanted a safer job, they would settle for one that requires the same level of skill and would inevitably pay less.

As much as I dislike hearing stories of miners killed in accidents, the risk level that the miners take is not mine to decide. The amount of additional compensation for risk is not mine to take away. Safety isn't free.

We all take risks, and I would venture to say that we all take risks with our own lives if we feel the benefit exceeds the risk of an undesirable outcome. I drive a convertible sportscar. It's not the safest car in the world, but I knowingly take the risk of driving a car that would not survive a major accident. Members of my family would prefer that I drive a safer car and sacrifice the enjoyment I derive from my current vehicle. Luckily, they have not yet appealed to the government to impose safety regulations that my car would not pass. Just as miners exercise greater caution while they are at work in the mines, I exercise greater caution while driving as another way to counter the risk that my surroundings impose. Regardless of how insignificant my personal example is, the principle applies equally to other risky scenarios.

As we enter 2006, let's not start out with additional regulations, but leave important decisions to those whom they will affect.

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